Scholia Reviews ns 11 (2002) 2.

Emma Stafford, Worshipping Virtues: Personification of the Divine in Ancient Greece. London: Duckworth. Pp. xiv + 274. ISBN 0-7156-3044-X. UK£40.00.

Nicolas P. Gross
University of Delaware

The alienness of antiquity is often epitomized by the question: Did the ancients really believe in their gods? Answering yes, though correct, hardly helps an inquirer driven by the axioms of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and a full explanation of the ancient systems of belief is required. Within this arena, a most vexatious question concerns deified abstractions, cults of personified ideas -- anthropomorphic representations of any non-human thing (p. 4). Indeed there are even problems with the ancient definition of personification -- the word which identifies the problem. Given the difficulty of comprehending these ancient views, Stafford's new book is exceptionally welcome. As a whole, the book addresses the origins, sources and causes of deified abstractions through detailed examination of six such figures: Themis, Nemesis, Peitho, Hygieia, Eirene and Eleos. While the iconography of personification has been thoroughly examined in Shapiro's excellent book,[[1]] Stafford's work is the first to integrate literary sources, iconography, epigraphy, theology and archeology in nearly forty years.

In her first chapter, Stafford sets forth an overview of the problems inherent in such a wide-ranging study. Not until long after worshipping personifications became a religious practice in antiquity did a useful definition of the term even appear. In the second century AD, Hermogenes of Tarsus first grapples with the concept when he discusses ethopoiia and prosopopoiia in his Progymnasmata 9.1-7. He regards the latter as a means of bestowing character on a thing and an act that involves creating a character (p. 7). Employing this statement as a working definition of personification, Stafford traces its use in poetry, especially in Hesiodic genealogy, and in cult practice. Written inscriptions, the graphic arts and remnants of religious sites provide further identification and verification.

But what in fact are deified abstractions and why do they exist? For the skeptical Karneades writing in the second century BC (quoted by Sextus Empiricus Against the Mathematicians 9.186-88), they appeared to be deified emotions or states of the soul (p. 20). Plutarch (Erotikos 13.756b), on the other hand, merely relies on tradition to support belief in a divinity such as Love. Even the modern view of personification is ambivalent in that only some spirits (p. 26) become personified and in the shifting between mythological divinity and abstract idea. In so far as political personification cults are concerned, Theriault considers the role of a divinity such as Homonoia (Concord) as mediating between Olympic divinities and every day life.[[2]]

The first case study that Stafford discusses is that of the archaic and thoroughly anthropomorphic (p. 45) Homeric persona, Themis (Order) who represents established customs on which the political community is based. Subsequent to her manifestation in Homer, Themis appears in Greek religion in a minor cult in Athens and in the month name Themistios, attested in several Thessalian villages. This cult is also attested in Boiotia in an inscription (p. 51) about an Alexis, a priestess of Themis. So too near Marathon at Rhamnous there is a sanctuary of Themis and Nemesis (Retribution). The pattern of a deified personification appearing first literature and then in cult while by no means universal is not atypical.

Like Themis, Nemesis possesses a personal history for she was, according to Hesiod, among the many women raped by Zeus (p. 75). To deceive Nemesis, Zeus assumed the form of a swan, and Leda then cared for the resulting egg from which Helen emerged (Apollodoros 3.10.7). The location of the rape was assigned to Rhamnous where Nemesis had a cult sanctuary. Stafford considers Nemesis both an anthropomorphic persona and an allegory of an abstract idea (p. 75). And further defines her as righteous anger or indignation aroused by injustice (p. 76). Beyond the Rhamnous sanctuary of Nemesis, another instance of this cult is found in Smyrna where two goddesses (Nemeseis) were said to have dwelt. Nemesis' personal history is also represented on a pot (red-figured amphoriskos) where she is shown participating in Helen's abduction by Paris. In literature, she appears in the lost comedy of Kratinos, entitled Nemesis, is invoked by Electra in Sophocles' Electra (line 729) and by Antigone in Euripides' Phoenician Women (lines 182-84), and again appears in Plato's Laws 717D. The double nature of Nemesis, mythological persona and abstract idea, remains stable through the history of her appearance in literature, graphic art and cult. Changes in emphasis in representation can be ascribed to the fashion of different times. Unlike the cults of Themis and Nemesis that arise in specific locales and are disseminated through epic, Peitho (Persuasion) is associated almost exclusively with a single Olympian, Aphrodite. In fact, Peitho frequently appears as a cult title for the goddess (p. 111). The effect of Persuasion can be visual as in her adornment of Pandora (so that Pandora will persuade the eye) or verbal/rhetorical as revealed in Pausanias' description of Peitho's sanctuary at Sikyon (2.7.7f.) Once the local population had appeased (persuaded) Apollo and Artemis, the two took up residence at Sikyon. The best-known literary appearance of Peitho's cult where Aphrodite is joined with Peitho's rhetorical aspect occurs in Euripides' Hippolytus. At the outset of the drama (lines 29-33) Aphrodite refers to the temple that Phaedra has dedicated to Peitho in the hope of finding amatory success with Hippolytus. Of this passage the scholiast (Schol. 11.321) states that Phaedra tried to persuade (PEITHEI=N) Hippolytus to have sexual intercourse with her. With regard to actual (rather than fictive) religious practice, Theseus (Hippolytus' father and Phaedra's husband) established the Athenian cult of Aphrodite Pandemos and Peitho (p. 124).

Unlike Themis, Nemesis and Peitho, Hygieia (Health) first appears in a pre-literary cult; consequently she possesses few personal characteristics. Yet in 420 BC, she arrives in Athens as an autonomous deity along with Asklepios. In light of the devastating Athenian plague that immediately precedes her appearance, her arrival is consistent with Athenian history. Similarly the very suddenness of Hygieia's appearance has a corollary in the paucity of evidence attesting to her existence before 420. What evidence there is suggests that her cult arose in the Peloponnese. Despite her history in myth, Hygieia was extraordinarily popular.

The question whether the Greeks really believed in their gods becomes particularly acute with regard to Eirene (Peace) or, at least, modern skepticism becomes far more pronounced. Burkert[[3]], for example, believes that Peace and other divinities such as Demokratia stir up no more than dusty, aesthetic antiquarian interest (p. 173). While literary reference to the goddess, Peace (especially in Euripides and in Aristophanes' Peace), precedes the establishment of the cult of Eirene in Athens (375 BC), the cult's religious nature can not be doubted. To be sure the cult was established after Timotheos' victory over the Spartans, and therefore the goddess embodies both a religious and a political aspect. Yet the two characteristics are hardly dividable. Even if Eirene arouses a note of modern skepticism, the religious quality is quite significant for the ancient Athenians. Perhaps paradoxically worshipping the goddess, Peace, was indeed bloody (p. 177) as records of sales of hides of sacrificed oxen attest. Just as worship of Hygieia arose from and was driven by the plague, so too the Peloponnesian Wars formed an important motivation for the origin of the cult of Eirene. In fact by joining her with Wealth (Ploutos), Kephesodotos (sculptor/vase painter) departs from Wealth's traditional, mythic association with Demeter and thereby suggests, through this innovative paring, the new significance of Peace for the welfare of Athens.

Although a study of Eleos (Mercy) is certainly worthwhile even if just for the difficulties, this divinity is by far the most elusive of all those considered in this study since ancient sources are sufficiently confused to make a conclusive demonstration of real cult practice impossible. While there is a sanctuary referred to by Pausanias as the Altar of Pity, the location that he refers is all but surely the Altar of the Twelve gods, since this sanctuary was most commonly used for supplication. The tourist Pausanias was probably confused by the local appellation. Given the paucity of evidence, the cult probably constitutes a rhetorical fiction employed by orators to move audiences.

A study like Stafford's contains inherent difficulties of locating a sound perspective on the mythological and rational aspects of any cult of a deified abstraction and of recognizing that no single theory can adequately explain the origins of every cult. Consequently the case-study method she employs is both effective and invites further exploration. To discover Worshipping Virtues' greatest virtue (no pun intended), it must be read in its entirety to derive full benefit of Stafford's judicious use of available evidence and her balanced presentation of countervailing scholarly views.


[[1]] A. Shapiro, Personification Greek Art: The Representation of Abstract Concepts (Zurich 1993).

[[2]] G. Theriault, Le culte d' Homonoia dans les cités qrecque: Collection de l' orient Méditerranéen No. 26, Série Épigraphique 3 (Paris 1996).

[[3]] W. Burkert (tr. J. Raffan), Greek Religion: Archaic and Classical (Oxford 1985, 1977).